LANSING, Mich. — A top aide to Michigan’s governor referred to people raising questions about the quality of Flint’s water as an “anti-everything group.” Other critics were accused of turning complaints about water into a “political football.” And worrisome findings about lead by a concerned pediatrician were dismissed as “data,” in quotes.
That view of how the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder initially dealt with the water crisis in the poverty-stricken, black-majority city of Flint emerged from 274 pages of emails, made public by the governor on Wednesday.
The correspondence records mounting complaints by the public and elected officials, as well as growing irritation by state officials over the reluctance to accept their assurances.
It was not until late in 2015, after months of complaints, that state officials finally conceded what critics had been contending: that Flint was in the midst of a major public health emergency, as tap water pouring into families’ homes contained enough lead to show up in the blood of dozens of people in the city. Even small amounts of lead could cause lasting health and developmental problems in children.
The emails were released late in the day, after Mr. Snyder’s State of the State address Tuesday night in which he profusely apologized to the residents of Flint and promised to help remedy the problem and get to the bottom of how it occurred. The Michigan House on Wednesday approved $28 million requested by the governor to assist the city.
Though Mr. Snyder issued the emails as part of an effort to reveal the administration’s transparency on the matter, the documents provide a glimpse of state leaders who were at times dismissive of the concerns of residents, seemed eager to place responsibility with local government and, even as the scientific testing was hinting at a larger problem, were reluctant to acknowledge it.
The messages show that from the moment Flint decided to draw its water from a new source, the Flint River, officials were discounting concerns about its quality and celebrating a change meant to save the cash-starved city millions of dollars. From 2011 to 2015, Flint was in state receivership, its finances controlled by a succession of four emergency managers appointed by Mr. Snyder’s administration.
That upbeat mood lasted for months, even as residents began complaining about the new water’s foul odor, odd color and strange health effects, and began showing up at events with “jugs of brownish water.”
Document | Flint Water Crisis: Emails Released by Gov. Rick Snyder Michigan’s governor released hundreds of pages of emails regarding Flint’s lead-contaminated water supply.
A news release on April 25, 2014, from the City of Flint announcing the change to the water source acknowledged, “Even with a proven track record of providing perfectly good water for Flint, there still remains lingering uncertainty about the quality of the water” by the public.
It went on to say that “in an effort to dispel myths and promote the truth” there had been repeated tests of the water. The release, which was shared with state officials, said that a state expert verified that “the water being put out meets all of our drinking water standards and Flint water is safe to drink.”
In October of that year, a memo from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality addressing advisories for Flint residents to boil water still seemed to minimize the possibility of any serious problem, instead blaming cold weather, aging pipes and even the city’s population decline for the advisories.
“The city has taken operational steps to limit the potential for a boil water advisory to reoccur,” Stephen Busch, a district supervisor for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, wrote.
In Michigan, public records laws do not require Mr. Snyder to release his emails, but he was under heavy pressure to do so, especially after an editorial in The Detroit Free Press over the weekend.
The crisis has had repercussions stretching to Washington and the Democratic presidential contest. Mr. Snyder is a Republican.
In Washington on Wednesday, Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, who was attending the Conference of Mayors, said such lead contamination would never have been permitted had Flint been a rich suburb.
President Obama, who met with Ms. Weaver on Tuesday and declined to visit Flint while attending the annual car show in Detroit, also weighed in. He said that he “would be beside myself” if he were a parent in Flint.In an interview to be aired on CBS News on Sunday, Mr. Obama said, “The notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down — that shouldn’t happen anywhere,”
Flint, led at the time by an emergency manager who was appointed by the state to help solve the city’s fiscal woes, switched water supplies in April 2014 — in part to save money, which the emails showed amounted to $1 million to $2 million a year.
For almost five decades, Flint drew its water from the city of Detroit’s water system, but concerns about high prices from Detroit helped lead to a switch. The city’s mayor at the time, Dayne Walling, encouraged leaders to “toast” the switch with a taste of the “regular, good, pure drinking” water, the governor’s emails show.
The mood grew less upbeat as time went on. People talked about smells and rashes. Residents carried jugs of brownish water to meetings. One state legislator warned the governor in a letter that his constituents were “on the verge of civil unrest.”
At points, the water was found to have bacterial contamination, and then disinfectant used to kill the bacteria caused a chemical contamination. Even after those problems were resolved, many residents said the water was bad.
Within months of the switch, a General Motors engine plant in Flint found that the city’s water had corroded parts, and stopped using it. A hospital saw that the water was damaging its instruments, and stepped up its own filtering and use of bottled water, as did a local university.
Still, officials seemed slow to respond. In one memo for the governor from February 2015, officials played down the problems and spoke of “initial hiccups.”
“It’s not ‘nothing,’ “ the memo said, adding that the water was not an imminent “threat to public health.” It also suggested that Flint residents were concerned with aesthetics.
“It’s clear the nature of the threat was communicated poorly,” the memo said. “It’s also clear that folks in Flint are concerned about other aspects of their water — taste, smell and color being among the top complaints.”
By September, state officials, hearing new concerns about the possibility of lead in the water, seemed eager to place responsibility for the pipes and the water firmly with local authorities.
Two state agencies responsible for health and environmental regulation “feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state,” Dennis Muchmore, then Mr. Snyder’s chief of staff, wrote in a Sept. 25, 2015, email to the governor and the lieutenant governor.
In the same email, he went on: “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject,” he said, in an apparent reference to Andy Dillon, then the state treasurer.
One memo to a state aide says an Environmental Protection Agency expert, Miguel Del Toral, said in February and April 2015 that the state was testing the water in a way that could profoundly understate the lead levels.
Referring to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, the memo says that “staffers have essentially downplayed or ignored warning signs” from Mr. Del Toral — warnings that seemed “to lay out exactly what’s come to pass. …”
According to the memo, Mr. Del Toral had written: “Given the very high lead levels found at one home and the preflushing happening in Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated, since they are using preflushing ahead of their compliance sampling.”
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